Q&A: Stoops discusses Vandy disappointment

MARK STOOPS
“OK, again, very disappointed just like I said in the post game of the Vanderbilt game. Very disappointing loss. Obviously, very tough on our team, on our players. They really put their heart and soul into that game and put a lot on the line. We all know it was very important. There was no denying that leading up into the game. That’s what I guess is the good that I take from it is the players really put a lot into it. We’re not particularly happy with the way we had been playing going into that game. We put a lot into it, we had a great week of preparation. Really played very well at times in that game. Again, the game comes down to wins and losses in critical situations. There were plenty of those that I’m sure we’ll get into. In a nutshell, when you have the ball first and goal and get zero, from about six, eight inches away, that was the start of a night that was very frustrating for all of us. Not getting that ball in the end zone. Then the second opportunity, get it on the two or the three, and again come up with nothing. It was very difficult.

“Defensively, really felt like the guys really played, probably as solid as we’ve played all year with the exception of maybe one other game. Guys played really well. Again, we gave up 14 points when really we weren’t even on the field. The pick six for a touchdown and giving it to them on the two or the three. That’s hard to overcome. Game comes down to a few possessions. Again, the good that comes from it is I thought our players played as well as we had certainly in November since I’ve been here. To play that fast, to play with that much energy, to do some very good things. That defense was very good as we know. The offense moved the ball quite well. Really did some good things. The turnovers stalled us and a couple of possessions inside the red zone stalled us. Defensively, played an outstanding game really. Gave up one play where—again, deception play. We got deceived. We got tricked. Gave up that score. Outside of that the defense played really well.”

On if Drew Barker will definitely start: “Yeah, Drew’s going to start. Yeah. Drew’s going to start this game. It was good to get him some more reps and to get him some more game experience. He went in there in the first possession and gave us a little spark. Led us down the field for a touchdown. It was good to see. We’ve been talking about this for a long time and a lot of times it comes to players around him making plays and doing things for the quarterback, but it’s time for Drew to get the start. That’s the bottom line. He’s done some good things. He’s earned the right and he’s going to start this week.”

On if Drew Barker will start the rest of the season: “I’m not sure. He’s going to start this game.”

On if he worries about a divide between the offense and defense: “I really don’t. I think, and I mentioned it to them because when we went in there you saw the pain in some guys. You saw that hurt. Quite honestly I was glad to see that because we need more of that. We need guys that are very upset, that we invest a lot. We expect to win and go play to win and when we don’t we’re upset about it. I absolutely have no worries about it carrying over into this week. Again, I think we need that fire, need that motivation, need that inspiration. I was glad to see it and I love to see the passion all the way through the game with some of our guys. We need more of that and that’s what we’re going to build on.”

On going back to Patrick Towles against Vanderbilt because Barker hadn’t been in that situation: “No, we just honestly felt like we wanted to see if somebody could get hot and spark us. When we did that with Drew he went in and did some good things, like I said, it sparked us and gave us some life. He came back and made a few mistakes just like all of our guys. We were trying to find that balance and we’ve been going back and forth. Again, we’ve talked about this a long time with the quarterback situation, Drew’s going to get his opportunity and if he takes it and runs with it then we’ll know from there. To answer your question about the following week, he’ll have that opportunity and we’ll see where he goes.”

On looking at film and if anything jumped out at him: “Well, you’re always upset about the missed opportunities. That stays with you for a long time. That’s still there. We’ve been working hard on trying to be good in critical situations like fourth down and third and shorts and all those things and we’ve even put another period in practice past couple weeks to just work on critical situations because so many times you could play well — just like maybe this past week where we did so many good things — and the game comes down to a couple of critical situations that you don’t execute and you don’t win. We need to make those plays and we will. I know the frustration’s there. And believe me, it’s all fair. It’s fair criticism. I completely understand that. We’ve just got to keep on getting better and make those plays to win games. The good is that our team played fast; they played inspired. We did some better things. The bad thing is a few plays don’t make a difference. We need to be good enough to overcome anything bad that happens.”

On how close Sihiem King was to breaking a kickoff return for a touchdown: “Very close. He was very close. He had one on one with a little bit of leverage with the kicker, but he was very close. That was a good return it was well blocked. We had a one-on-one with the kicker, we’d like to win that.”

On his message to frustrated fans: “I completely understand the frustration of fans. I want them passionate and I want them to care. I want them to show up and support this team. The tickets are bought and we need them in the stands. I’ve said it over and over again; I want to deliver. I wanted them to win that game last week just to give people more hope and inspiration and to get them here and play for these kids. Our players played their tails off. That was good to see. I know this Big Blue Nation loves that, loves it when we play with that passion and energy. They did that. We’re going to do that again this week. We have two games left. It’s going to start this week with Charlotte and I promise you the team will come out inspired and ready to play. I completely understand the frustrations and I’m not going to let our team and our coaching staff, we understand where we’re going, what we’re doing and where we’re headed. And I know a lot of the good things we’ve done, too. And I know it’s been a long time since we won, been to a bowl game and all those things. We know what we’re in for, but we’re going to hunker down, get back to work and get better.”

On if the game was as bad as the film indicates: “As far as us outplaying them or what?”

On outplaying and other things: “Well, we played and we did some very good things. Obviously, they, but yeah, we played some very good football. Is that the question you’re asking or the other way?”

On both ways: “I didn’t know which way you were going.”

On if the film said they played as badly as they did: “No, I thought we did some very good things. We held them to one touchdown that they tricked us on. And we moved the ball as well as just about anybody that played them this year, we just didn’t convert on the short yardage plays I said. So those situations are pretty bad because you didn’t, we didn’t get in the end zone. Again, I think we’ve played some very good football outside of some critical situations that decided the game.”

On injuries to Cole Mosier and Alex Montgomery: “Cole got hit in practice and got a head injury last week, late in the week. Alex unfortunately did get another significant injury in the opposite leg that he hurt two years ago. I think he just injured his left knee – he injured his knee.”

On if the game plan will be any different with Drew Barker: “Well, it will be a little different than it was this week. It will be very similar to the same game plan I’ve had with Patrick: giving him the opportunity to go play through the ups and downs. So this past week, as you know and I said that going into the week, we had a plan and it was different. This past Saturday against Vanderbilt it was different because Drew was ready to go. In all the other games since I’ve been here, when the starter was starting he had the opportunity to go play the game unless some drastic things happened. So, he’s not going to have a short leash. He will have the opportunity to go out there and go through some ups and downs and play throughout the game. Whether Patrick gets in or not, I can’t answer that. We’ll see. He’ll prepare that way. That’s for sure.”

On if he thinks the situation will prevent team from coming out flat against Charlotte like it did against EKU: “They better. Yeah, they will. They will. Our team, I anticipate that our team will come out very hungry and ready to play and put a lot into it, just like we did the Vandy game.”

On Barker being a guy players have rallied around since he committed and if Stoops gets the sense his teammates are ready to buy in to Barker as a starter: “I do. I do. I think he’s – I feel that he’s waiting to take some leadership and to get this opportunity. I know he’s been anxious, as he should be. As I said throughout the year, I really like the way he’s been preparing, I like the way he’s been practicing and getting ready. I told him a long time ago that he needs to worry about himself and prepare to be the best quarterback he can get and sooner or later – I pointed at the stadium as we were meeting in my office – ‘You’re going to get this opportunity in here, and what you do with it is up to you.’ I told him yesterday, I know it took a little longer than he anticipated to truly get the keys to the car but he has them now. So, let’s see what he can do with it. I’m excited to watch him play.”

On what he saw on film from the first chance at first-and-goal: “We lost yards on the first play, which was frustrating. And again, I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus, but I was frustrated we were throwing the ball on second down. That’s what I saw. In hindsight, I would’ve told Shannon, ‘Run the ball three times in a row or four downs in a row. Pound it, pound it, pound it.’ Because we were very close on third down to squirting it through there. Fourth down, it was so close we went with a sneak and it didn’t work. So, that’s what I saw. We didn’t get the movement, but I think if we’d run the same play that we ran on third down, if we run it four plays in a row we definitely score. We were getting the movement, getting the block.”

On Boom Williams playing in that short-yardage situation instead of the bigger Mikel Horton: “Quite honestly, throughout the course of this year, Boom had been as consistent as the other guys in the goal line situations. Again, you know I don’t like throwing players under the bus, but later in the game we had a situation where it was third-and-one and he had a one-on-one and we lost it with another one of the backs. We lost that one-on-one when we should have got the yard. I think a guy that we need to look at is Jojo in short yardage, to kind of get to where you were going with that. There’s been inconsistencies with all of them, but Jojo – moving forward, I want to put Jojo in that situation.”

On how much the game against Charlotte factors in the decision to make a QB switch: “I think it’s certainly easier to put Drew in a situation to play a non-conference opponent than on the road in the SEC. It certainly does come into the equation, but that hasn’t been the determining factor. I’ve always told you, and it’s been true, I’ve started the guy that we believe gave us the best opportunity to win. Now it’s Drew’s turn.”

On D.J. Eliot saying someone in the box had seen it:Yeah, when he was running down the field. (Laughter) I saw him, too. (Laughter) I’m not trying to make light of it, but yeah, we got tricked. We got tricked. I owned that right after the game. We got deceived, we got tricked. It’s a trick play. The official told me afterwards, he said, ‘I’m sorry, Coach.’ He said, ‘But it was legal because of the way they did it.’ It was a fair play. A legal play.”

On all of Drew Barker’s reps coming on the road and if that factored into the QB decision:Until you pointed that out, I didn’t even really pay attention to it. That’ll be good for him to get some home reps. He needs to. The only thing – I’ve said it over and over again – we’ve been trying to work him in there. The opportunity – it’s been tough because of the games and early in the year the possessions were so tight, but it’ll be good for him to play.”

On if he feels like a play like Vanderbilt’s trick play shouldn’t be legal:No. No. It was legal. It was legal. I can’t say – I’d be crying sour grapes if I said anything. You might see it… I’m not going to say anything. It was a legal play. It was a deception play that worked.”

On the feedback he has gotten from recruits over the past month and if there’s concern about a repeat of last year’s de-commitments:I think there’s always a concern, and certainly when you lose some games it doesn’t help you in that front. But no, I feel very good about it. If you look at it – I don’t know what I legally can say, but I feel very good about the nucleus of this group. Very good. I think if you look across college football, there’s going to be some. And when some happens, let’s not panic. We’ll be OK. We are recruiting quite a few players right now. So I feel very good about the nucleus of what we have recruited.”

On how he balances being aggressive and making 4th down decisions while still learning as a head coach:First, about learning as a head coach, you threw me off there. If you coach for 30 years as a head coach I think you’re still learning. I bounce quite a bit off some of my brothers that have been head coaches, very close to, obviously, and been doing it a long time, and he’s still learning, too. But I stand by the decisions we make, and I own them. When I make a bad decision I’m not trying to hide from them. You hope one decision doesn’t determine the outcome of a game. Sometimes it may. I’m never going to put that all on the players, and when I address the players that’s what I always start with: We will coach better. We’ll make better decisions, you’ll play better, we’ll get this done. We’re all in this together. Any mistake that I make I’m not afraid – I’ll own it. In hindsight, again, I’d prefer to punt the ball. I had great confidence in our defense to stop ’em and that’s why I did it. Very different from a week ago. I know everybody’s going to throw – all that, but as you could tell by the way the Georgia game went, we had to do something. This was different. This, to me, isn’t in the same category. But I did have great confidence in our defense to stop them, and at the worst case scenario I felt like the most we’d give up would be three. I believe in my heart if we don’t get deceived we still do that.”

On if Boom Williams was hesitant to take contact against Vanderbilt:A little bit. I think certainly he was, probably, coming off that injury. And give him credit. He played with a significant injury. He had a significant elbow injury that he came back with and toughed it out and tried to play. But was there some – I’m sure he was hesitant, a little bit, and it probably was painful for him.”

On if Williams will play this week, and what his message to Patrick Towles was:Boom should be good to go, barring any setbacks. He’s fine. He didn’t get set back at all in the game. And both quarterbacks handled it very well. And they’ve been supportive of each other all year.”

On Garrett Johnson’s near-TD catch and if officials explained why it wasn’t: “I didn’t get ahold of Steve myself, personally – Steve Shaw, the head of officials. I’ll touch base with him today. I sent in the play. I’ll get an explanation back. But it’s my understanding (that) when you’re facing the opposite direction (facing inbounds vs. out of bounds), your whole foot needs to be in, what I’m understanding. And whether they have any latitude in that rule at all, I don’t know. So that’s the way I understand it. Clearly, his toe was in. But I believe the rule states when you’re facing the opposite direction and not going (out), that your whole foot needs to be in. If there’s no room for that, then that would be the correct call. Game of inches.”

On Barker’s maturation, mentally: “I believe he’s further along, as you would expect. I feel good about him right now because of the work that he’s put in throughout the year. I know he didn’t get as many game reps as we’d like, but he’s gotten quite a few practice reps and he’s getting more and more confident and more and more comfortable. So I definitely feel like he’s at a point right now where I’m excited to watch him play.”

On Jason Hatcher’s big game: “Very encouraging. It was great to see him out there. It was great to see him full-strength. You could see the impact that he makes. And I love the energy that he played with. He was one of those guys that you could tell that hurt was there after the game, and it should be when you invest that much and put that much into it. But I loved – I saw a side of him that I hadn’t seen in a long time, if ever, and that was the leadership, the inspiration, the really playing with that kind of passion and energy that you’d like to see everybody play with.”

On how Timmons handled his demotion from punt return and the positive of him catching a TD catch: “He was fine and I like the way he handled it, because he came up to my office and sat down and wanted it back, or wanted to know why. And I gave him my answer, and he was good with it, and any competitor would want to get back out there. And I like that. And I told him that, after he’d muffed the one – which, again, nobody wants to see that, but any punt returner is going to have those; it’s going to happen – we’re not trying to crucify him. I thought he did a pretty good job most of the year with catching them. It’s the decision-making after that with catching the difficult ones, running up and catching balls that are short, all those things. And I thought we made progress in that area, making sure we fielded all punts.

“Because that field position kills you a bunch, all that hidden yardage. You let a punt drop and you don’t catch it and it rolls for 15 yards and it pins us inside the 10, those things have hurt us from time to time. So again, it’s just one of those situations where I have confidence in Ryan. He came back on the offensive side and played and made a good catch and got in the end zone. He missed one – it was a tough catch that would’ve given us a touchdown early – but he’s battling. And you know what? Also, to credit him a little bit, it was one of his better games he’s ever played at wide receiver. A lot of that is unseen, but it’s the things he’s doing away from the ball and how he’s running his routes and how precise he is and blocking and just all those things. It was one of his better games, so that’s great to see. We need to build on that, because I still really believe in him and we need him to be a playmaker in this offense and he still has some games left this year and another year.”

On Dorian Baker appearing to whiff on a block, stop running on a route and a couple of big drops: “Yeah, the block, I was upset about the block as well, but that’s a pass or a run, so he got caught a little bit off guard on the one you’re talking about. I saw it on the field, too, and was about to chew him out. But he got caught a little off-balance on that.”

On the routes and where Baker is with focus/effort: “Again, I think that’s an issue where we’ve got to be more efficient offensively. Is he throwing it over the shoulder or is he throwing it back shoulder on some of those? And I saw it as well and watched it and talked about it with the offensive coaches and it’s things we’ve gotta get cleaned up. But those are issues that sometimes are going to happen. You’re reading the leverage of the defender.”

About Jennifer Smith

Jen Smith has been a sports writer at the Herald-Leader since 2000, covering everything from high school sports to auto racing to various University of Kentucky sports. A native of Louisville and a graduate of the University of Kentucky (much to the dismay of her Louisville graduate mother and Indiana graduate father), Jen now resides in downtown Lexington with her husband and two young sons. You can follow her on Twitter @jenheraldleader or send her an email at jsmith3@herald-leader.com.
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